Sunday, November 11, 2007

NUMB3RS: My View

The TV show NUMB3RS (yes, the "3" is intentionally in the title) has been on for a couple of years now, and features a professional mathematician/college professor assisting his FBI agent brother to solve crimes. The show has riveting plot lines and generally good acting, and has been a success in its Friday 10:00 p.m. time slot.

As a general rule, I like the show. Being a "math guy" myself, I can understand—probably better than most—the uses of mathematics in crime solving. The show is very interesting and engrossing. But there are two things I do not like about the show, one minor and one major.

First, the minor: Charles (the mathematician) seems to be able to numerically quantify psychological data with ease. This is directly at odds with reality. A scene might go like this: "Well, if you can give me data about the last four crimes, I will be able to construct a [insert name of fancy mathematical system or algorithm here] that will predict where he is likely to strike next." Predict, perhaps. Predict with something like 88% probability...with that level of specificity...and after constructing the system/algorithm in something like mere minutes? Not a chance. Psychological data is notoriously difficult to quantify in any widely-agreed-upon manner, making psychological research inherently difficult.

Second, the major: The show contains far too much sexual content. No major character in the show is married, and most of them, at one time or another, have been immoral with another character in the show. (Charles has had two women—perhaps this is some crass Hollywood way of trying to make mathematicians look cooler.) As is usual from the Hollywood sewer, these adulterous relationships are either irrelevant to the plot, or the tawdry focus of it. Regardless, they are completely unnecessary: The show could be a success even without them.

This phenomenon reminds me of the show Due South from the 90's, about a buttoned-up, straight-as-an-arrow Canadian mountie and his Chicago police friend who solve crimes together. (This show's main irritation was its obligatory "music video" segment—some two-minute segment of the show would have to be accompanied by raucous, loud, obnoxious, unneeded rock music. This is now fairly common, even during football pre-game shows.) The show began with some success for a season or two before a tryst entered the plot, between the mountie and an evil-seductress-bad-girl. The show went into a ratings tailspin soon thereafter, and died the following year.

My point: Making the lead character initially virtuous, and then later making him a sexually "cool" person, ought to contribute to the downfall of the program. My wish is that Numb3rs will clean up its act, but I won't hold a single breath waiting for that.

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